She’s the showrunner with the golden touch. She’s the woman who turned ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ into a worldwide phenomenon. She’s the brains behind ‘Scandal’. Who is she? Shonda Rhimes, a 50-year-old mother of three from Chicago who ranks among T’V’s highest-paid people. And by the way, that’s not just us talking. She’s said so herself.
The Highest-Paid Showrunner on Television
In 2018, Rhimes took to the stage at Elle magazine’s Women in Hollywood celebration in Beverly Hills to tell an A-list audience of Lady Gaga, Charlize Theron, Angela Bassett, Keira Knightley, and Mia Farrow that thanks to her exclusive multi-year development deal with Netflix, she was now the ‘highest-paid showrunner on television’. As it turned out, it wasn’t an idle boast. Or any kind of boast at all, actually – as she later explained, her forthrightness was less about bragging about her own success than it was about calling out how men and women broadcast their success differently. By talking about her own wealth, she was trying to inspire other women to chase similar heights of glory. But motivation aside, her little speech made one thing abundantly clear. Rhimes is rich. Really rich. Rich to the tune of $140 million, if the latest estimate from Celebrity Net Worth is to be believed. So, how did she do it? Find out for yourself as we take a deep dive into the life, the times, and the fortunes of Shonda Rhimes.
Back to The Start
Rhimes was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 13, 1970. Her parents are Ilee, a university administrator who later became the became chief information officer at the University of Southern California, and Vera, a woman who managed to put herself through college and become a college professor while raising 6 kids. With parents like that, it was little wonder Rhimes was raised to prioritize her education. A passionate reader, she briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a novelist. “I was always a storyteller,” she’s since said. “I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but [a writer].” But then she’s happened to catch a performance of The Colored Museum. From there, she decided her future lay in telling stories through a very different medium.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1991 with a degree in English and film studies, she studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California. Even then, her promise was obvious: after ranking top of her class, she won the Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship and an internship with Debra Martin Chase. By the time she hit the scene in the early 1990s with her Master of Fine Arts degree in hand, she was ready to rumble. After leaving USC, Rhimes worked briefly as an assistant before landing writing jobs on the likes of ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’, ‘Blossoms’, ‘Veils’, ‘Crossroads’, and ‘Princess Diaries 2’. By the turn of the noughties, she was already a success. But she was about to go stratospheric.
ABC and The Big Time
In the early 2000s, Rhimes pitched an idea for a show about war correspondents to ABC. They didn’t like the idea, but they did like her. So they asked her to come up with something else, something that, if possible, revolved around a hospital. America would like a medical series, they decided. So she did. And America did, too.
By the end of Grey’s first season, over 20 million viewers were regularly turning in. Even more phenomenally, most of them still are. Today, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is ABC’s longest-running scripted primetime show. It’s made household name of its stars, has become one of the highest-rated shows among the 18–49 demographic, and has generated more advertising revenue than any other show on TV. Critics regularly wax lyrical about its lasting and profound impact on popular culture, while judging panels have loved it enough to throw a staggering 38 Primetime Emmy Award nominations its way.
Although its stars may make most of the headlines, it’s the show’s creator, writer, and executive producer Rhimes who’s reaped most of the financial rewards. When the viewing numbers started to skyrocket, so did her producing fee. And when the show was sold into syndication to LifeTime for $1.2 million per episode and to Netflix for $1 million per episode, we can only imagine what her cut of the deal was (well, actually we don’t have to imagine. If entertainmentnutz.com is right, it was 10%).
But it’s not just ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ that’s made Rhimes such a darling at ABC. Grey’s spin-off, ‘Private Practice’, may have been described by the New York Times as ‘one of the most depressing portrayals of the female condition since The Bell Jar,” but even that wasn’t enough to stop the viewers tuning in in their millions. Her political thriller series, ‘Scandal’, managed to find enough success for ABC to justify 124 episodes over seven seasons and the American Film Institute to award it the title of Television Program of the Year. Rhimes has also enjoyed considerable success as the executive producer of ABC’s ‘Off the Map’, ‘How to Get Away with Murder’, ‘The Catch,’ and Station 19.’
The Netflix Deal
If Rhimes though ABC paid a decent enough wage, it was nothing compared to the massive payday that came her way in 2017 when she signed a multi-year development deal with Netflix. As Forbes notes, the four-year pact with Netflix didn’t just earn her a place in the history books as one of the first showrunners to sign an exclusive deal with the streaming service, it also bought an estimated $100 million her way, instantly making Rhimes the wealthiest female showrunner in the U.S.
In June 2018, Netflix announced the first project under the deal will be ‘Inventing Anna,’ an adaptation of the New York Magazine story ‘How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People.’ The ten-part series will star Anna Chlumsky, Alexis Floyd Laverne Cox, Julia Garner, and Katie Lowes, who Rhimes has previously worked with on ‘Scandal’. Whether or not the series proves enough of a success to rival ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ who knows? That it’s going to do no harm at all to Rhimes’ already mammoth net worth, we’ve no doubt at all.